Tunisian filmmaker Mustapha Hasnaoui’s documentary focuses on the preparations surrounding the 2005 premiere of “Margaret Garner” at the Michigan Opera Theatre in Detroit. The production is based on the life of a Kentucky slave who, after being captured following an escape to freedom in 1856, killed her children rather than have them grow up in enslavement. The story inspired Toni Morrison’s novel “Beloved,” and Morrison wrote the libretto for the opera – keeping closer to the actual events than her own fictionalized version.
But the focus of this film not on Morrison or her musical collaborator Richard Danielpour. Instead, a great deal of time is spent with star Denyce Graves, who speaks at length about the opera’s impact on her emotional well-being. Graves also speaks a bit too much, especially in her rude encounter with the owner of the Kentucky plantation where Garner lived. That encounter is caught in progress and it is not clear just what instigated the ill will, but Graves comes across with diva behavior that is nothing short of emetic.
Unfortunately, Hasnaoui only presents thin slices of the opera rather than complete arias, and the film never shows the opening night reaction to the work. But to Hasnaoui’s credit, the film quietly juxtaposes the artistic reinterpretation of 19th century injustice with harsh views of today’s dilapidated Detroit, leaving the viewer to wonder whether more attention should be lavished on the present instead of the past.